Michael James is a barrister at Enterprise Chambers. Lawyers cannot stop worrying about class distinction, says Michael James.
Cherie Booth's call last year for the Bar to be more open to working class applicants came a few days after one television comedian described her learned friends as "posh tosspots with wigs".
Is class still an issue in the legal profession? In the nineteenth century, solicitors had to enter country houses by the tradesmen's entrance, while barristers were allowed in through the front door. Surely such distinctions have vanished today, or have they?
Of course, class is about far more than money. It also relates to accent, language, education and social behaviour. Although lawyers' earnings vary from next to nothing to millions a year, most people would place them firmly in the middle class with doctors, accountants and others who are not allowed to sleep with their clients.
The sort of lawyer jokes current in the US do not seem to have really caught on over here, and there seems some small social cachet in saying you are a lawyer. Of course, it depends on who you are talking to. As one who has served in both branches of the legal profession, I always felt that saying you were a barrister went down better with girls at parties. It seemed to sound more glamorous – but perhaps that is different from class.
That brings me to my second point, whether there remain any class distinctions within the legal profession. Traditionally a barrister was supposed to refer only to another barrister as "my learned friend". A solicitor was merely Mr Jones. Such discrimination seems outmoded in an age when both branches of the profession have been at the same universities, and specialisation, learning and intellectual virtuosity can be met (sometimes, anyway) in either branch.
Nevertheless, there are places where the idea of the Bar as the senior branch of the profession survives. The law mirrors English society as a whole in containing numerous gradations of status which are a cause of satisfaction to some and insecurity or irritation to others.
It is a bit like the old David Frost sketch where the middle class man says he (the upper class man) looks down on me but I look down on him (the working class man).
I (the writer, that is) work in a large provincial city where (some of) the solicitors in the posh big firms look down on those in smaller firms. (Some of) the latter solicitors look up to the local Bar, but the posh solicitors only look up to the London Bar. Meanwhile, the posh London solicitors look down on our local posh solicitors. Or am I imagining all this?
Perhaps the only escape from anxiety about one's social status within the profession is to seek a judicial appointment. A High Court post brings an automatic knighthood which must surely put an end to any lingering sense of social inferiority. But would girls at parties be more impressed by the Chancery or the Queen's Bench Division?
Ultimately, in the legal profession as in England as a whole, one cannot stop worrying about status.